They always say you can’t go home again, but on a recent trip back to my home state of Virginia, not only did I feel at home but I saw familiar sights through brand new eyes. One of the most amazing visits for me was to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Growing up less than an hour from Monticello, I’d been many times over the years. This time, however, I saw this historic home, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, from a much different perspective.
I drove the winding road that leads up the hillside toward Monticello on a bright morning after two days of snow in the area. As I rounded each corner, I couldn’t help but remember that Jefferson, his family and guests had to traverse the steep hillside by horse and carriage. I kept expecting to see the home—in my childhood memory, I could have sworn you could see it from a distance—but turned into the parking lot of the visitor center. The visitor center is gorgeous, with a lovely café and a museum store I could have spent hours exploring. But I was here to see Jefferson’s handiwork, so I hurried for the shuttle that takes you up the rest of the hill to tour the home. (You can walk back down, stopping by Jefferson’s grave site if you like.)
Reacquainting Myself with Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson might have been our third president, but he was so much more than president. A statesman, a diplomat, a world traveler, an explorer, craftsman of our Declaration of Independence. It was under Jefferson that the Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the new country. Fortunately for future generations, Jefferson documented every moment of his life, including the 40-plus years spent building and perfecting his Virginia home. The guides who take you through Monticello are amazing. My trip through the house was probably the single best guided tour I’ve ever taken. I grew up on Virginia history, but I learned so much more that day.
It was interesting the things I remembered from my childhood. The house had seemed much larger then, but that was before I’d visited palaces in Europe. Jefferson had tried to bring a touch of the France he grew to love back to his beloved Virginia, but his extravagance wasn’t that over-the-top you see in European palaces. This was a real house lived in by real people. I believe Jefferson had a purpose for everything he included.
One of my favorite memories from childhood was Jefferson’s clever “polygraph,” or writing machine. It was an ingenious way to save a copy of everything he wrote back in the day before anything was automated. As he wrote with one pen, the other attached pen created an exact duplicate. I felt a little bit of that school girl thrill when I caught sight of it on the tour, and it was fun to watch the children on the tour with me explore each of the amazing inventions scattered throughout Monticello.
Other notable objects to watch for when you tour Monticello: Jefferson’s theodolite (a survey tool), the revolving top table that helped Jefferson write the thousands of letters he crafted every single year of his life, a wine dumbwaiter and the revolving door with shelves. Jefferson worked hard to make things easier in his life and some of the contraptions made me smile.
When I visited as a child, I barely paid attention to the land on which Monticello sits. It was much different this time. The views were breathtaking looking out across the valley. Jefferson appreciated the beauty of his native land and worked his entire life to create not only gorgeous surroundings, but spaces that served very distinct purposes in his never-ending search for answers to life. I was lucky to be able to take my stroll around the grounds with Gabriele Rausse, the Director of Gardens and Grounds at Monticello. The public is invited to book a garden and grounds tour, which is offered daily from April through October with one of the property’s trained guides, but I believe my tour with Rausse was one of the most amazing hours I’ve ever spent exploring history and nature.
Rausse’s own background is fascinating. Born in Valdagno, Italy, he is known as the “Father of the Modern Virginia Wine Industry.” He came to the US at the request of a friend who was starting a vineyard. He helped his friend start Barboursville Vineyard then went on to help start several other vineyards in the Charlottesville area before ending up at Monticello. Rausse says he “fell in love with Jefferson and couldn’t leave.” That love became obvious as I walked the snow-covered grounds with Rausse.
Jefferson loved wine. According to his records, he started drinking wine in college, but truly fell in love when he spent years in France. The wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux changed him forever and, in a way, they also changed the face of Virginia. When Jefferson returned, he tried to plant the same grapes in Virginia he had found in France and Italy. He used the concept of a wide terrace, common in Europe but almost never seen in the US, to help regulate the temperatures and water retention of his orchards and vineyards.
As I strolled down to the south orchard with Rausse, I was struck by the meticulous grooming of the gardens and vineyards. Even on that cold snowy day, the rough-hewn lattice work and grape vines with their tiny first-signs-of-spring buds stopped me. Rausse’s passion for the land is something I rarely see. The first vines were grafted at Monticello in 1984. Three decades later, Monticello grows more than 20 varieties of grapes from around the world—all but one of the varieties Jefferson had originally planted on his land.
Rausse rattled off the varieties, which included Chardonnay, Muscat, Sangiovese, Toscano, Aleatico, and a rare Zibibbo (or Muscat of Alexandria) that grows in parts of Italy, parts of Africa and here at Monticello. We walked past the gardens that include many of the same vegetables and herbs Jefferson once planted. I continued to wander the grounds with Rausse, hearing stories of goats eating all the plants out of the greenhouse, archeological digs of the wine cellar that uncovered bottles from Jefferson’s wine collection and the stump that remains from the giant tulip poplar tree that most believe Jefferson himself planted outside his bedroom in 1807.
I was especially interested in the poplar tree, which succumbed to disease in 2008. I had read about its demise and was thrilled to learn that the wood went to several local artisans, including Huss & Dalton Musical Instruments in Staunton, Virginia. My cousin’s husband is co-owner Mark Dalton and when I toured their wood-filled studio last summer, I’d been shown the remaining wood from the Monticello poplar. I felt a thrill of excitement that somehow, even if distant, I had this connection to Jefferson’s legacy.
And it is that legacy of Jefferson’s that makes Monticello so beloved by Americans. Jefferson was a mere mortal man—and, unquestionably a white man born in the 18th century who kept slaves his entire life—but he was a man with the insight and wisdom to ask questions, to document, to study, to teach. Each of us knows a little more about life in early America because of Jefferson. His foresight had him defy Congress and purchase the land in what we now know as the Louisiana Purchase because he believed in the future of the U.S. He left a legacy for each of us that lives on in the halls and rooms at Monticello and beyond in the gardens, groves, orchards and vineyards.
As a little girl growing up in Virginia, I took that legacy for granted. I took for granted the records he kept so meticulously that help us understand the past. After my tour of Monticello, I enjoyed dinner at nearby Clifton Inn. As I sipped a Virginia wine and munched on cheese from a nearby farm, I gave a silent toast to Jefferson. I believe he would be pleased with his legacy—and would celebrate the wines, ciders, cheese and other produce that is a part of today’s Virginia heritage.
If You Go…
Monticello is located about 10 minutes outside Charlottesville. It is open daily year round with guided tours available of the home and grounds. Adult tickets are $18 from November through February or $25 from March through October. Additional specialty tours are available. The gates are open from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tours start at 9 a.m.
931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway
Charlottesville, VA 22902